Does computers make us dumber, or no?

I just read an interesting article in Wired Magazine called The Critics Need a Reboot. The Internet Hasn’t Led Us Into a New Dark Age. It’s not one of their 20-page epics, it’s more of an editorial piece. The premise is that “the experts” are all atwitter about how computers and technology and video games are making us dumb.

I’ll spoil the ending; it’s still worth a read. The answer is that they’re not. Not exactly, at least. Long before Atari 2600s and Apple IIe computers, people were into phrenology and Salem witch hunts and all sorts of other stuff. I’d give some modern examples, but everyone believes some pretty dumb stuff and I don’t want to step on toes needlessly. The verdict is that computers and technology have a role in our dumbening, but it’s just the current tool of choice. If it weren’t for technology, we’d be getting dumber in another way.

The part of the article that I really loved:

Jacoby argues that long-standing American values like rugged individualism and the need to question authority have metastasized into reflexive anti-intellectualism and disdain for “eggheads,” “elites,” and pretty much anyone who might be described as credentialed. This cancerous irrationalism isn’t pretty, but it isn’t technology’s fault, either.

So our national zeitgeist is one where someone who has developed an expertise is worthy of distrust and ridicule? Sort of, actually. The Bill Gateses and Warren Buffets of the world may have something to say about it, but there’s also an element of truth to it. The movie Idiocracy would ridicule people who used big words as “talking all faggy.” (And if you haven’t seen it, the big words weren’t that big.) Women have know about this for ages – act dumb or be popular, to greatly oversimplify. Presidential elections aren’t won on issues, they’re won on who people would drink beer with. To greatly oversimplify – again – one big battle being waged in this campaign right here, right now, is to prove who’s both the most qualified and who’s the least elite. Seems like a pretty narrow niche; good enough, but not too good. Too much good and you’re elite. Not enough good and you’re not good enough. Or something.

The article also hints that technology is also a promising un-dumbening tool. Wikipedia is statistically more accurate than the Encyclopedia Brittanica. I guess. (Take that, you bastards!) Lots of effort by lots of people go into accumulating and sorting humankind’s best and hardest-won information. The problem is that there are lots of people working awfully hard at stuff that’s just not as good. The thing that the Googles of the world have not yet sorted out for us is how to judge information qualitatively. We keep hearing “take it all in and make your own decisions.” If I’m reading contradictory stories about John McCain as a POW from 2 sources I don’t know, that’s not the handiest approach. I’m left to judge the information on purely subjective reactions; who spelled better, which presenter has nicer hair a used a prettier typeface? “Just sort it out” doesn’t work that well for people like me who take in tons of information from tons of sources. I’m not even saying that there’s One Right Answer or anything so narrow, but for people seeking out information that will justify their belief that the world is flat, certain information is just not useful. But mindset-prioritized information won’t help anyone doing real research because all most people use internet research for is to validate what they already know. It’s human nature empowered by technology, and it’s a double edged sword.

Meat eaters love anti-soy propaganda. Vegetarians think anti-soy propaganda is perpetrated by the dairy industry. There are big expensive studies from passionate groups that prove it both ways. How do I find what’s true? Not what justifies my stance, but what’s really and incontrovertibly true?

There has to be a better way, and I don’t have a suggestion. Interesting times, and Google-like spoils to the first group that starts to untangle qualitative information ranking. Even user voting is sort of useless; read an Amazon forum. If you go to an Anti-Apple forum, all the Apple people come in and vote down dissenting opinions regardless of their merit. Read a McCain forum; anything pro-Obama gets voted down. And vice-versa. Post on craigslist; whoever has a critical mass can flag off the opinions of the opposite group. In a certain way, it’s a purer form of governing than the democratic-republic form of the US, there’s nothing representative about it, just one person one vote. But it’s also as impure. People who hate war will vote for a warmonger because they also hate abortion and vote for the anti-abortion guy. In big groups. After a certain number of weeks of American Idol, it becomes personal; people stop voting based on any kind of performance virtue and give in to blind “I just like him/her” votes. I don’t even know if it’s bad, but democratic voting on information accuracy or quality on the web isn’t likely to improve the accuracy or quality of anything, it’ll just filter out views with less supporters, an entirely different matter.

It gets into dumb and ugly abstractions at some point. What IS truth? Is there only one? Is it even worth seeking? How do you have absolute truth in a relativistic world? How do you maintain relativistic perspective in an absolute world? At one point is a truth “unpopular” or “controversial” and at what point is it just “untrue” and therefore worth eliminating from mankind’s pool of knowledge? And who judges it? It’s sort of a nightmare. And it leaves science to solve philosophical and ethical questions – an unfair burden, but one that’s often unrecognized, and one that science often accepts without complaint. Until I hear of a solution that factors in some very convincing perspective on what “true” really means and how to maintain it without bias, I guess I’m left to make my own decisions.

I guess it’s a perfect time to learn a little more about quantum physics, I won’t be confused by any sort of background or qualifications from my past. I’ll just take it all in and make my own call.